Bad news for left and right

By Mikko Majander
30 April 2015
Finland Finland
As the populist True Finns become the second biggest group in parliament, the Social Democrats suffer their third consecutive defeat and now face a renewed identity crisis
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Four years ago Finnish conservatives celebrated a historic moment when their centre-right National Coalition became the biggest party in the country. Although they had to govern with an unholy alliance of six parties across the whole political spectrum, in the vocabulary of prime minister Jyrki Katainen almost everything was “fantastic”. After the European parliament elections last summer, he could further claim that his party alone enjoyed greater electoral support than the traditional Finnish left combined.

In triumph, Katainen departed the domestic political scene for a place in the new European commission and left his party and homeland in the hands of Alexander Stubb, who, at the time, was the most popular politician in Finland. But the “fantastic” times were over, and the government failed to deliver the structural reforms, which the rapidly ageing nation with a struggling economy desperately awaited. Relations with the main coalition partner, the Social Democratic party (SDP), grew sour while the opinion polls showed declining figures for both.

Before this month’s elections Stubb told the Financial Times that the past four years of left-right coalition government had been “a traumatic experience”. The prime minister will now be relieved from his trauma. Both the National Coalition party, which slipped from 20.4 to 18.2 per cent of the vote, and the Social Democrats, who saw their share fall from19.1 to 16.5 per cent, suffered a defeat. It will surely be a while before they choose to govern together again.

The strains between left and right played into the hands of the Centre, which in the elections bounced back from the opposition to pole position with 21.1 per cent of the vote. Its chair, Juha Sipilä, a successful former businessman who is something of an unknown quantity in politics, may now choose whether his government will lean to the left or right. While the rank and file of the Centre has traditionally tended to prefer cooperation with the social democrats, the elections make an alliance with the right more probable.

In either case, the populist True Finns are almost certain to be the third partner. Against expectations, they managed to mobilise the electorate in the last weeks of the campaign and advanced from fourth place in the polls to the second biggest group in the new parliament. The achievement was all the more remarkable in view of the fact that their hot-button issues – the EU, euro, immigration and multiculturalism – did not play a huge part in the elections.

Despite many minor scandals in the past four years, the True Finns have established their place in Finland’s politics. Their leader, Timo Soini, clearly wants to wrap up his long political career with a prominent minister post. He has led the foreign affairs committee of the parliament with skill and respect, and in political debates he can also adopt the role of an elder statesman. Soini’s personal credibility is high, even if the same cannot always be said of all of his troops.

The rise and success of the nationalist populists reflects the anguish of the Finnish left. The SDP suffered its third consecutive defeat in parliamentary elections, while the Left Alliance polled a mere 7.1 per cent. Both parties are now at an all-time low. The Greens, representing mainly a liberal urban and progressive electorate, did well with 8.5 per cent. All in all, the social base of the True Finns may well make it the biggest labour party in Finland.

It was precisely to resist this trend that the Social Democrats last year changed their party leader from a young female, Jutta Urpilainen, to a middle-aged man, Antti Rinne, with a reputation as a tough trade union boss. In the light of the election results, it is clear this strategy fared poorly.

Better news for the SDP came in the form of the fact that, although diminished, its parliamentary group now consists of 21 women out of 34 MPs (62 per cent) – a remarkable change in the gender balance. Moreover, the relative success of its young candidates is a welcome breakthrough for the ageing social democratic party. One of them was Afghanistan-born Nasima Razmyar who, together with Ozan Yanar of the Greens, will now become the first immigrant MP in the Finnish parliament.

After a more or less united campaign the poor result has brought old Social Democrat rifts to surface. The SDP has clearly not resolved its identity crisis: whose party does it want to be and whose interests does it seek to represent and defend? Rinne promised to push more leftist policies but he failed to mobilise new voters, especially among the disaffected who do not trust or care about party politics. The turn-out in the elections remained at70 per cent.

Perhaps the crucial question now is how future relations between the Social Democrats and the trade unions will evolve. In opposition the SDP may well drift into a position in which it is primarily seen as the political wing of a still-strong trade union movement. It is not a promising position from which to launch a comeback. Finns have a paradoxical relationship with the unions: they love to hate and blame them for almost everything – while at the same time they themselves remain heavily unionised.

On the other hand, the government is the place to be if one wants to avoid the austerity measures that the centre-right parties kept promoting in their campaigns. The Social Democrats are no less worried about the competitiveness of Finnish export industries, but they emphasise investments to infrastructure, education, innovation and new technologies, while the right places its hopes on labour market reforms.

Whatever the shape of the future coalition, the new government will face a difficult list of unresolved problems, starting with the long-delayed health care reforms. It is obvious that the country cannot expect increasing benefits in the coming years, but there is still a strong consensus in support of the so-called Nordic model. In the past, Finns have shown both a willingness and ability to adapt to hard times and choices, but they also need the promise of a better future. It requires strong political leadership to provide one. A European-wide recovery would not harm that endeavour.